When Beginning a New Book

When it is time to begin a book, when the blank pages are waiting and the fountain pens have been filled, I recommend you make the barest of plans you can, just enough to aim at what you are setting out to do. Too little direction and you might miss Medicine Bow. Too much planning and you can talk yourself out of turning into the little unmarked road that leads to the left, along which may be the moment the whole journey will end up being about.

It helps to make a list of the stories you want to tell and events you want to describe or the things you want to say. I find it is better to make a list rather than an outline. A list makes me feel as though I am writing a book rather than taking a correspondence course.

I think it wise to leave enough room to ramble around between stops to see what is there to be discovered. Or perhaps to sit in a square and watch people go by. It will not hurt to drive down a long road and have to turn around.

I like to have enough of a plan to know when one might be well advised to turn west into the sunset or stop for the night. But I also need to give myself the freedom to add a chapter or throw one away, to add a story or save it for another day.

A writer can dutifully follow a well-reasoned outline and end up missing the point. A writer can complete the assignment she set for herself and still not write the work she meant to write.

– Robert Benson “Dancing on the Head of a Pen”
12/29/17

The Gift of Great Literature – by Sarah Arthur

Many of us, when charting the timeline of our lives, can point to a moment when a story or poem happened. It happened the way an accident or a record-breaking snowfall happened: it was perhaps expected, perhaps not. One moment we were performing the usual routine—pouring cereal, say, or opening the mail—and the next moment we sat motionless with a book in our hands, eyes unfocused, a wave of words washing over us as relentlessly as a newsreel. When we look back and narrate our life, we will remember precisely where we were sitting, what we were wearing, the way the eaves dripped in the fog. Ever after, when we hear dripping eaves, we will remember. The story, the poem, will come back to us like the voice of long-dead grandfather, sharply, as if there has been no time or distance in between. It doesn’t matter who wrote it, or why. What matters is that it changed us.

That is the gift of great literature, a gift that comes to us even at Christmas when so much good art is effortlessly shoved aside in favor of the flashy, the cheap, the temporal. Finding the timeless literature of novelists and poets such as Christiana Rossetti, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Kathleen Norris, Oscar Hijuelos, and Li-Young Lee—people of faith whose works you may never see in a “Christian” bookstore—is like lighting one candle after another. Flame upon flame, light upon light, until the hallowed sanctuary of our quiet devotion becomes something of a shrine.

Winter in the Northern Hemisphere is particularly suited for such encounters and likewise suited to prayer and reflection. We find ourselves more and more indoors, ever in shadow, our bodies slowing to the rhythm of the sleeping woodlands. Silence is not hard to find. And yet crashing into the midwinter quiet comes the most frantic event of the cultural year. Perhaps it is our fear of stillness, of quiet, that drives us to anything but the “silent night” of Christmas: we do not want to know what we might discover in reflection. More likely, it is a consumer economy that thrives on a relentless pace: slow and contemplative people are not shopping people; silence does not sell.

So, the one time of year that we are given to pause and seek the One who seeks us becomes the one time of year that drives us nearly to self-extinction. And, it is this season, of any, when we are least likely to pick up a book and read. Who has time for that? But it is a Word that has come to us, and words that tell the story of that Word from generation to generation. We risk, in our time, losing the words that truly have meaning, the stories and works of substance. What has been said before is said again, in ever more sentimental or sensational fashion—and set to pop music besides, which over time makes us immune.

As I write early on this December morning, snow lies deep in my garden. Night retreats westward; stars slowly start to fade. Two small boys sleep across the hall, resting in the grace-filled inertia of the very young. Many, many things must be done today, not only to sustain a household but also to navigate the cultural expectations surrounding the coming holidays. But I will choose—if you do—to sit. I will choose to breathe in the words of others. Here in the dark, I will seek points of light that cannot be extinguished, no matter how frenetic the world.

Excerpted and adapted from Light Upon Light: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany (Paraclete Press, 2014), by Sarah Arthur.

The Sharing of the Crowd

Harnessing the sharing of the crowd will often take you further than you think, and it is almost always the best place to start.
We have barely begun to explore what kinds of amazing things a crowd can do. There must be two million different ways to crowdfund an idea, or to crowdorganize it, or to crowdmake it. There must be a million more new ways to share unexpected things in unexpected ways.

In the next three decades the greatest wealth – and more interesting cultural innovations – lie in this direction. The largest, fastest growing, most profitable companies in 2050 will be companies that will have figured out how to harness aspects of sharing that are invisible and un appreciated today. Anything that can be shared – thoughts, emotions, money, health, time – will be shared in the right conditions, with the right benefits. Anything that can be shared can be shared better, faster, easier, longer, and in a million more ways than we currently realize. At the point in our history, sharing something that has not been shared before, or in a new way, is the surest way to increase its value.

– from “The Inevitable” By Kevin Kelly

Taking One’s Time

One of my writing heroes is James Taylor, though our arts are different. He can carry a tune, for one thing.

“Sometimes a song will be finished for a deadline in the studio the day the thing is cast in stone forever,” he once said, talking about the art of crafting pop songs. “I know that songs and arrangements evolve and develop over time,” he went on, “that somewhere around the twentieth time it’s played for a live audience, a song finally completes itself.”

His art and the art I make are different, no doubt. If I learned nothing else from this fellow traveler with whom I have journeyed down different roads all my life, I learned this: if it takes twenty passes for a lyric of a few dozen words to grow into itself, then taking one’s time with twenty or thirty or forty thousand of them is probably not a waste of time.

– Robert Benson “Dancing on the Head of a Pen”

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